Much has been written in pages like these about the huge uptake of working from home during COVID lockdowns.
So much has been written, in fact, that my colleagues and I have reviewed the massive amount of literature that has emerged since the start of the pandemic to try and make sense of what it all means.
Working from home will become more nuanced. Traditionally, working from home has been undertaken by older managers and knowledge workers, but the demographics are changing. While many employees are currently working from home, in a COVID-normal world this is likely to change.
Researchers have found that younger employees prefer to work in their usual pre-pandemic workplace. This enables them to liaise with colleagues and engage in those all-important incidental conversations. Regional and rural workers are also less keen on working from home. Women with caring responsibilities and older workers generally want to continue to work from home. Employees in knowledge industries have indicated they would like to work hybridly - i.e. two to three days a week at home.
It will be important to monitor which groups of employees work hybridly and which work full-time in their same pre-pandemic workplace. If some groups are accessing regular workplaces less often, they are less visible. Previous research has shown that employees who are less visible in the workplace have less access to opportunities.
The popularity of other remote working arrangements is also increasing. Pre-pandemic, some public sector organisations had adopted activity-based working (ABW). ABW enables employees to work in settings that are created for specific activities. So, for example, office spaces incorporate areas for collaboration and creativity, and quiet spaces for research or policy work. ABW can increase productivity as the dedicated workspaces can increase efficiency.
ABW was predicted to disappear when COVID emerged, due to concerns about hygiene in shared workstations. ABW will stay - as evidenced by some Canberra public sector offices continuing with the practice. Hygiene may be a concern, which could lead to increased flexibilities such as staggered working hours or rostered days in the office. Organisations will also make strategic decisions about what tasks are better done in a traditional workspace, in an ABW environment, or virtually.
Public services have also experimented with remote working hubs. Hubs can be located closer to people's homes, and use the organisation's infrastructure. This means they can be more ergonomic than employees' homes. Employees are also able to engage with colleagues in person, negating another negativity of working from home.
Large private sector organisations are adopting this model. Nippon Telegraph and Telephone Corp will provide its 300,000 employees access to 3500 offices globally. Organisations including Amazon, Facebook, EY, and Google have also adopted this model.
The next phase of remote working is "work from anywhere". This has developed in response to the broader upheavals wrought by the pandemic, including employees moving to regional and rural areas. Work from anywhere also accommodates employees working in different countries. Organisations benefit through a greatly expanded labour market, and employees benefit by working in their preferred location, even for short periods. Facebook, for example, enables employees to work away from their home country for up to 20 days a year.
While the pandemic has wrought changes to ways of working which were unimaginable 18 months ago, working from home is just the beginning. The public sector is flexible and agile, and has the opportunity to be a leader in new ways of working.
- The material in this opinion piece has been adapted from the Future of Work report being launched today. Details of the event can be found here.
- Sue Williamson is an associate professor at UNSW Canberra's School of Business.